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Your Heart as You Age

  • Category: General Health
  • Posted On:
  • Written By: Matt Gougler
Your Heart as You Age

We're all familiar with the external signs of aging: graying, thinning hair; crow's feet; laugh lines; turkey neck; brown spots; and height loss - to cite the most common examples.

Some people may not be aware, however, that as we age - so do our internal organs. While all internal organs are important, our heart and blood vessels play particularly important, life-sustaining roles. February is American Heart Month, so ATRIO Health Plans is supporting this educational effort by spotlighting the impact of aging on our hearts and blood vessels, as well as steps that can be taken to minimize negative effects.

Blood Vessels and Aging

Think of blood vessels as the body's transportation system. Specifically, the heart pumps blood through blood vessels that then deliver the blood to and from all areas of the body; cells require blood to live. As we grow older, blood vessels undergo a variety of changes:

  • Blood vessel walls become thicker, tougher and lacking the elasticity to adjust to sudden changes in blood pressure, thus increasing the risk of aneurysms.
  • The inner surface of blood vessels become rough, which can create fatty plaques and a heightened risk of blood clots.
  • Calcium salts can collect in age-weakened vascular walls; this process raises the odds of having a heart attack or stroke.
  • The walls of veins, particularly in legs, can weaken and stretch, often resulting in varicose veins and a type of inflammation termed phlebitis.
  • Baroreceptors, which are sensors located in blood vessels that help maintain proper blood pressure, become less responsive over time, often causing dizziness and falls.

Heart and Aging

A well-functioning heart is an essential component of sustaining life. Aging, however, is accompanied by deficiencies in heart function, including:

  • Cardiac output, which is the amount of blood the heart pumps through the circulatory system in a minute, decreases; this can result in: blood pooling in the legs; cold extremities; edema (swelling caused by excess fluid trapped in the body's tissues); and angina (chest pain caused by temporarily reduced blood flow to the heart).
  • The likelihood of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) increases with age, causing coronary arteries to narrow and thus restricting crucial blood supply.
  • Aging heart cells are less able to use oxygen.
  • Arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat) are more common with age.
  • Aging and high blood pressure often go hand in hand, which makes the heart work harder to circulate blood. Elevated blood pressure heightens the risk for stroke, heart disease, and kidney failure.
  • A heart murmur caused by valve stiffness is fairly common in older people.
  • Congestive heart failure (heart is no longer able to pump oxygen-rich blood to the body efficiently) is very common in older people. In those older than 75, congestive heart failure occurs 10 times more often than in younger adults.

Show Your Heart Some Love

The impact of aging on your heart and blood vessels can't be eliminated entirely, but you can take steps to minimize negative impacts, including:

  • Don't smoke. Men between the ages of 65 to 75 who have ever smoked should be screened for aneurysms in one of the major arteries of the heart.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet with reduced amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Exercise moderately and within your capabilities, but do so regularly.
  • Have your blood pressure and cholesterol checked annually. If you have diabetes, heart disease, or kidney problems, your blood pressure and cholesterol should be monitored more closely.